Saturday, October 13, 2007

On Writing Critiques

An Essay
by Carter Jefferson

Doing critiques is a daunting task. Whenever I comment on somebody's work, make suggestions for improvement, I wonder if I'll hurt feelings. And will I actually help?

The other day I got a message from a member of the IWW that touched me deeply. I want to tell you about this because I think others, especially people fairly new at the workshop game, must suffer just as this person did. My answer to my correspondent may give a few people enough courage to dive in and do it, no matter how lacking in confidence they may be.

Here's the note I received:

"I know I've not been very active around here this summer, during which time I seem to have lost my nerve on the critting side of things. So, I've sat down this week and gone through a lot of other crits and find yours so helpful. Perhaps its reading your comments for others, but in reading them, I have found answer to many of the pointers that trouble my own attempts at writing, making both the errors and the options that much clearer.

"Just wanted to tell you I'm benefitting from your comments to others even while I'm taking time out. Your positive and helpful remarks to others is giving me the incentive to get back into the writing saddle again."


Here's my reply:

"Hi, friend -- and thank you.

"I haven't been very active, either, and I'm sorry about that, especially if somebody actually reads the crits I do.

"I've been travelling on and off, but mostly I'm up to my ears in a new project, The Internet Review of Books. It's absorbing, and I think it will be a success, but it's also one hell of a lot of work.

"I'm particularly glad you find my crits helpful, because I'm like anybody else -- it takes chutzpah to pick apart somebody's work, to suggest I can do something better than they can, and every time I do it I wonder about the person on the other end. I don't want to hurt feelings, but I want to help.

"What gives me courage is that other people's crits have given me so much help. Ten years ago I knew absolutely nothing about writing fiction, but stuck my neck out and started posting stories to a Usenet group in which some of the writers obviously knew what they were doing. They helped some, and then I joined a group like this one (but not as good), and then finally came here. Along the way some of the crits I got really hurt, but they still helped me get better. I learned a great deal. I also got some crits that were of no use at all, and some that told me to do things I knew wouldn't work. But all of them helped, no matter how inept they were. The semi-useless ones at least told me where I was failing to get through to somebody, and that's useful.

"All I can say to you is that any crit you do, no matter how off the wall, is going to help the victim, if that person has any sense. So gird up your loins and go after them. Call it tough love. You may not be an expert, but you know some things, and there are people who need all the help they can get -- including me, still."

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